Choreographies of Privilege and Protest: An Evolving Method of Dance Making

Nina Kossler


Two works I have recently created, #StandingBy (2019), and a new work in progress Together, A P A R T, We Stand (2020) both address intersectionalities of privilege, power, and protest in the identities and experiences of young people in the United States. One of the major questions I addressed in the choreographies and in the research that I conducted was how your privilege “positions” you in different contexts, and whether people can use their privileges to challenge hegemonic social structures. The dances promote nonviolent direct action by incorporating recognizable movements and gestures from contemporary and past histories of protests in American culture. I also questioned how privilege and the bystander effect relate and how they foster different types of responses to protests and social movements. In this article, I will detail the inspiration, research, process, and final product of #StandingBy and Together, A P A R T, We Stand, as well as future inceptions of the work and how it will continue to evolve as a choreographic method.


As an artist, I create socially relevant, culturally responsive, interdisciplinary choreography that reflects different human experiences through a process of research, dialogue, and collaboration. My process is often very concept driven, and is always highly collaborative with the performers I cast. Many times, my performers are the driving forces that shape the work I create, as I provide them with prompts to delve into their own personal experiences for the subjects I explore. I also usually have my dancers contribute some of their own movement invention to the choreography that is based off their personal connections to the work. This is my way of giving performers a point of entry into the work, and creating a passionate and meaningful working environment.

My interests that led to the inspiration of these two works came in part from my personal history in grappling with issues of privilege, the bystander effect, and the sociopolitical events that continue to shape my culture on a daily basis. It also came from my observations of behavioral patterns I have noticed in many people—young people in particular—in relation to how they respond to major events in the United States, and found connections between ideas of privilege and bystander effect. This led me to the following questions: how many people are succumbing to the bystander effect? If a specific sociopolitical issue does not directly affect privileged individuals, do some of those individuals remain silent because they feel it is “not their fight”? Do feelings of bystander apathy lead to an avoidance of taking direct action by assuming others who are more directly affected by a specific issue taking action are enough? How can individuals succumbing to the bystander effect be encouraged to take direct action in different ways, regardless of whose fight it might be? This last question became the driving force to #StandingBy. Later on I will explain how 2020 shifted the driving force in the creation of my current work in progress, Together, A P A R T, We Stand.

Research & Choreographic Process

In creating #StandingBy, I felt strongly that the dancers should know about the research that informed my work, and should understand purpose of the work. I provided dancers with writing prompts to begin unpacking their own personal experiences with privilege, and later had dancers develop these writings into movement ideas and concise stories that could be spoken aloud and performed. This allowed the dancers to maintain agency and autonomy in the development of the final product, and it also benefitted the dancers by allowing them to recognize their own social identities and privilege. Prior to beginning the process, the dancers had some understanding of their identities, but not always how various facets of their identities intersected and affected/were affected by privilege. They also were able to identify moments where they had succumbed to the bystander effect, but were somewhat unsure of how to use their privilege in a way to support those who may not have the same privileges and challenge hegemonic social structures.

The cast I assembled was comprised of undergraduate dance students in a university program located in Greensboro, North Carolina. These students were mostly dancers that I had worked with previously and developed strong rapports with, as well as students I had not worked with before who were interested in the work, which served as my MFA thesis. This production was not audition based, and participation was limited to dancers who were willing and available to commit to the duration of the rehearsal process, which spanned multiple semesters. The majority of dancers involved with the production identified as white cis-females, and also represented were two cis-male dancers who were Black and Latino, respectively. I initially wondered whether the homogeny of many white female-identifying cast members would visually translate on the stage in a similarly homogenous display of the privilege walk. Instead, complex intersectionalities of gender and sex, class, socioeconomic status, and more were revealed, which shaped some of the sections of #StandingBy. Additionally, a white woman was a featured dancer in the work whose experiences I chose to center because she grappled with her own privilege. Her trajectory from bystander to active social justice fighter mirrored the trajectory of the work as a whole. I acknowledge that the cast demographic of college students within a similar age range also presents a type of homogeny, and in future iterations of the work; it is my hope to continue to broaden my representation of more types of diverse populations. This is what makes the work a flexible model, as the experiences of the dancers are what give it shape and format. It is my intention to decenter my own privilege as a white, cis-female and amplify individuals with different experiences.

#StandingBy as a Choreography of Privilege

Some of the ideas that inspired #StandingBy included privilege, protest, media, the bystander effect, and intersectionalities of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and class. One of the sections utilized a privilege walk exercise as a movement idea that was developed and served as a recurring motif throughout the work. Privileges, or rights and advantages reserved for a specific person or group rather than for everyone (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) are deeply embedded in daily life and the history of the United States. Privilege statements introduced by Peggy McIntosh in her 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” have since been adapted into privilege walk exercises by many scholars, and often conducted at colleges and other institutions as ways of identifying what privileges you have or do not have, and how that compares to other members in a group. It tends to serve as a basis for discussion about privilege and a type of team-building that allows peers to recognize each other’s differences. There have since been many modifications made to the original statements by McIntosh, and many variations of the privilege walk. McIntosh’s original statements were centered on the unearned privileges of White people as solely related to race. Variations of the walk relate to gender, sexuality, class, disability, socioeconomic status, as well as many other social identities and the intersections between them. The statements used in #StandingBy were adapted from several variations of the exercise in order to address the unique intersections of privilege represented by the cast.

The privilege walk exercise begins with individuals standing in a uniform horizontal line in the center of an open space. A moderator reads yes or no statements and directs participants to take one step forward or backward in correspondence to a privilege they have or a privilege they lack. Sometimes participants are given an option to remain still if the statement doesn’t apply to them, or if they are too uncomfortable to divulge that information. Some of the statements used in #StandingBy were: “If you always assumed you would go to college, take one step forward,” and “if you have been impacted by divorce, take one step backward,” and, “if you studied the cultures of your ancestors in school, take one step forward.” The exercise usually culminates once enough physical disparity from the original horizontal line has been achieved so that can serve as a basis for discussion.

While the privilege walk activity is typically used to incite conversations that ultimately develop deeper understandings of privilege as intersectional lived experiences of individuals, oftentimes the binary yes/no statements that are read are more complex and cannot be answered with yes or a no1 . McIntosh’s statements, while groundbreaking at the time, have some significant limitations. She acknowledges some of these in her article, but perhaps her own privilege as a cis-gendered white female did not allow her to recognize some of the inherent assumptions in the statements she created. In example, some of McIntosh’s statements are: “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have,” and, “I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world's majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion2 .” Both of these statements reinforce colorblind ideology, which is a form of racism. The way McIntosh chose to present privilege solely from a perspective of whiteness does not delve into the experiences of people of color, other than confirming that racism cannot end simply by white individuals changing their attitude or acting alone. What would need to happen, she says, is the redesign of social systems. “To redesign social systems we first need to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions3 .”

While she is not wrong, McIntosh did not propose any actions to begin imagining that redesign of social systems. Her statements that reflect the experiences of people of color, and she does not directly address other types of privileges or the intersectionality of those privileges beyond acknowledging the interlocking of oppressions. Members of the group called the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective (MCWC) have critiqued McIntosh’s seminal work as a synecdoche, or a stand in, “by focusing on white privilege, it undermines anti-racist work by limiting our understanding and possibilities for action4 .” The MCWC explain the way white privilege pedagogy demands confession through the process of understanding and admitting one’s own privilege. This is considered the crucial action rather than taking anti-racist action, making it a dead end in terms of how to use privilege to challenge systemic oppression. McIntosh’s assumption is that by lessening white privileges, it will somehow also directly lessen oppressions of people of color. “Her text focuses overwhelmingly on conceptualizing privilege as individual and seems to equate individual White people coming to understand their own white privilege with overcoming systems of racial oppression5 .” The MCWC assert that more productive ways are needed for working with White people on questions of race, white supremacy, and anti-racism, instead of relying on McIntosh’s writing, which can only really give an early understanding of white racism and how it functioned in our society.

Since 1988, many of the adaptations of McIntosh’s original statements do reflect diverse multiracial experiences and perspectives, as well as privileges like class, gender, sexual orientation, financial status, ability, age, and education. However, many of the statements that do reflect these experiences include a negative directive of “taking one step backward,” which further shows how the exercise separates people by these statuses, and doesn’t demonstrate an active way of using privileges to challenge these systems6 . While conversation following the exercise can address this, in my own adaptations of the privilege walk I aimed to demonstrate a call to action in a physicalized way. How can individuals succumbing to the bystander effect be encouraged to take direct action in different ways, regardless whether or not a specific social issue directly affects them? As someone who has experienced and led privilege walk exercises before, I have noticed that much of the discourse surrounding the exercise centers on the issues and limitations. In 2015 Christina Torres, author of an online blog and frequent writer in Education Week: Teachers, wrote about some of these limits in her article, “Why the Privilege Walk is a Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise.” Because the exercise centers on whiteness, the statements initially created by Peggy McIntosh automatically place people of color in the back, symbolizing a lack of privilege. While White people do have more privilege based on the perception of their skin color in American cultures and many contexts, the intersectionalities of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, also have a significant effect on privilege. Torres also takes issue with the idea that in the exercise, people of color end up functioning as “props” to help White people understand their own privilege7 . Torres was invited to work with Dr. Sarah Mountz (California State University at Northridge- CSUN Assistant Professor, Masters in Social Work department) and Dr. Dimpal Jain (CSUN Assistant Professor, department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies) to develop and co-facilitate an alterative privilege walk activity to help academic mentors better understand their privilege and power.

The new privilege walk activity, called BUILD PODER (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity and Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research), utilizes critical race theory to address public health disparities by promoting the mentorship and inclusion of underserved student communities. New statements that focus on and call out the unique ways people of color have their own forms of power, questions that uplift communities and also push people of color to question their own experiences with each other such as: “Step forward if you have a strong understanding of your family’s history and culture,” “Step forward if you speak a second language,” and “Step forward if you have a specific community of people who share similar familiar and cultural contexts with you.” These statements don’t necessarily demonstrate a representation of the intersectionalities of privilege, but they do present statements that are not as focused on whiteness8 .

Based on the literature that informs my own issues with the privilege walk exercise, I do recognize that the exercise is very beneficial for White individuals to become aware of their privileges and the inequities faced by many. I do not argue that organizations and institutions continue to lead these exercises, but I do take issue with exercises that do not critically question and challenge the statements used in the exercise. I also take issue with those who lead this exercise and do not address how privileges can be used to take anti-racist action and challenge hegemonic social structures and systems of oppression reinforced by white supremacy. I now imagine the privilege walk as more of a dance, because privilege doesn't ever "place" us in a fixed position, as it is dependent on the different social and cultural contexts individuals encounter. This is also true for individuals whose social identities are incongruent to their phenotypic traits. Perception of observable traits has a significant effect on privilege. Margaret Hunter, professor of Sociology at Mills College, studies skin color stratification and explains how the lightness of skin tone can create numerous advantages and disadvantages for individuals, especially African Americans and Latin Americans. Specifically, she claims a disadvantage of having lighter skin tone is the lack of acceptance it can often create among communities and cultures. Because lighter skin is equated with whiteness, this can be perceived as a lack of cultural authenticity and ostracize lighter skinned individuals from their cultural communities, and as a result, can create a feeling of not belonging anywhere for these individuals. However, some advantages of having lighter skin are the privileges that are shared with White individuals such as higher incomes, more years of education, and higher status occupations9 . This systemic racism is maintained by institutionalized white supremacy, which relies on patterns and practices that are entrenched in various social structures and disadvantage people of color in order to privilege White people.

Initially, my intention for #StandingBy was to challenge and subvert notions of the privilege walk exercise, and to deconstruct some of the layers of privilege that exist intersectionally for each individual. As I mentioned earlier, I began my choreographic process by having my dancers physically and verbally respond to prompts I gave in order for them to develop an understanding of their own privileges. Specifically, I had the dancers identify moments in their lives and in their family’s lives where privileges and inequities affected them. I guided the dancers through several different privilege walks, including BUILD PODER, and the dancers examined the importance of social and cultural contexts, and the complex intersectionalities of privilege. We then began to adapt the exercises in to our own version, and dancers had the option of taking some of their experiences/social identities and embellishing slightly (without appropriating) in order to build characters that were not quite caricatures, but exaggerated representations of their own identities. Some of the dancers felt vulnerable revealing so much personal information about their identities in front of an audience, or friends and family, and creating a character provided a bit of anonymity without compromising the truth of their contributions. The dancers also wrote short narratives about their experiences. For some, these narratives appeared in the finished product as complete stories spoken by the dancers who created them, while others spoke only a single line of their story that intersected with each other, symbolizing common experiences shared by characters.

One of the ways I subverted the privilege walk in #StandingBy, was removing the "take one step" directive from statements, and allowing dancers to move in any direction, not just forward and backward. These directions were representative of individual pathways and intersectionalities of their own lived experiences of privilege. They used specific movement phrases to travel that conveyed emotional, human reactions to the statements. The purpose of adapting this exercise into choreography was to seek out the individuality in what can be a binary exercise. I developed this idea gradually, first by removing the directive of “take one step forward/backward”, then by adding affectations of weight, speed, and spatial direction parameters to show the emotional impact of statements. Giving the dancers this agency was essential in the formation of the work, as they were able to tell me things like, “my character wouldn’t step forward here,” in a specific section of the work, maintaining truth in the social identities of the characters.

I also added individualized spatial pathways that symbolized individualized non-binary journeys. Dancers incorporated gestures that gave emotional and personal responses to the statements such as a raised fist, a fall to the ground, and running several steps forwards/backwards as opposed to just one. Dancers held hands and found other ways of attempting to maintain physical contact to one another in order to symbolize divisions and separations that the implicit hierarchies at play in governmental and social structures in the United States create. The dancers interacted with each other during the privilege walk to convey that while privilege is individual, they are aware of the inequities and the emotional impact of each privilege the statements address. Some simply acknowledged a peer with a glance (succumbing to the bystander effect), while others helped pick up those who had fallen. In this first iteration of the privilege walk in the work, individuals had a choice as to whether they used their privileges to affect change and or perhaps change the societal structures of privilege.

​Over the course of my research I found that in order to understand privilege, it is crucial to understand the societal and patriarchal systems and hierarchies that are in place. This means knowing who has the most privilege/power according to race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, and education, to name a few, in a particular social context. It also means becoming aware of how privilege changes when these ideas intersect. Additionally, understanding daily effects of privilege and how seeing a privilege walk “performed” allows you to see and understand privilege differently. How can this start a dialogue and produce a deeper understanding of privilege, and a productive shift in how privilege and power are addressed in daily life on an individual level, but also on a broader societal level?

​One of the issues and limitations I had in my process was working with a cast of dancers that were among the same student age demographic, with a majority of my cast identifying as White females. Additionally, teaching and developing a mutual understanding of privilege with these students who previously had a range of experiences and understandings was a challenge in adhering to the timeline of once a week rehearsals for just a few hours. However, it was essential that I took the time to teach the dancers, because by the end of the process, we all collaborated and the students gave me input on what they said on stage, and how they responded in the different socio-cultural contexts represented in each section of the dance. Sometimes I would introduce a new statement and they would question the wording of it, and we’d work together to make the statement more equitable and inclusive. For example, the statement, “If you grew up in an urban environment,” was used in several variations of the privilege walk, and we took issue with this statement as it had a directive to move backwards, symbolizing a lack of privilege. Together, we decided that “urban” was being used as a euphemism for “low income,” “high crime,” and/or “unsafe,” and as a result, we changed the line to “high crime environment.”

​The privilege walk appeared several times throughout the work and became an overarching theme and framework. Some of the later versions of the walk included:

  1. A version where each character spoke a line of their personal history of privileges and inequities that overlapped with the other characters in the dance. This “shared and connected story” became a way for the main character of the dance to recognize and experience the intersectionalities of others, and also show how the experiences of others overlap and align. This also symbolized a coming together of what previous separated individuals.
  2. A version where people only stepped forward, and one person spoke statements that called for direct action such as: “Step forward if you organize, protest, and resist systems of oppression,” “Step forward if the cultures of your ancestors are a source of your resilience,” and, “Step forward if you challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or any other –ism10
  3. A version where people placed in the back for the privilege walk exercise struggled to press forward, and those in the front use their privileges to bridge the gap and come together, physically bringing those with less privilege forward and working to challenge hegemonic social systems. Physical unity was one of the ways I chose to bridge the gap between social strata.

#StandingBy as a Choreography of Protest:

While the privilege walk exercise served as a through line and movement motif throughout the work, the socio-cultural context in which I chose to situate the dance included different protests and social movements in 2018 and 2019 United States history, as well as other protests dating back to the 1960s. I consider privilege a key aspect to these protests and social movements, as the inequities for affected populations became the voices and energies that fueled resistance.

Political protests have complex and densely layered histories in the United States. Classic theories of protest envision the body as an agitated irrationality, and a kind of chaotic “mob” performance that succumbs to the unpredictable whims of the masses. Susan Leigh Foster challenges this idea in her close analyses of three different protests in US history in her article, “Choreographies of Protest.” She specifically focuses on the corporeal in relation to a changing structure of power and examines the collective connectivity that is achieved among protesting bodies and the violence of encounters between bodies and those defending the status quo. In two of the protests she studied, the 1960 anti-segregation sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the ACT UP die-ins in response to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, Foster notes that protesters’ silence, stillness, and nonviolence delivered a highly effective, powerful statement. It was the kinetic potential that remained in their bodies that made the silence and stillness heighten anticipation for spectators11 .

Dance scholar Rebekah Kowal builds upon Foster’s research in her article, “Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins,” how the sit-ins invigorated the civil rights movement by employing "nonviolent direct action" and Mohandas Gandhi's techniques of "passive resistance" to expose and oppose existing social conditions. Kowal points out that the sit-ins differed from other forms of protest at the time in that “boycotters or strikers made their point through concerted absences,” while sit-inners, “exerted pressure by insistent presence, occupying spaces from which they were usually prohibited. Sit-inners put themselves center stage instead of removing themselves from the scene12 .” Kowal also explained the presentation of the Black students who “staged” the sit- ins. The way they dressed, spoke, and acted was part of their performance for their right to be served "as if " they were white, "integrating" their Black bodies into formerly white public space. In this way, the protests suggested that Black people had to prove that they could be "as if white" before being granted equal rights. In the Greensboro case, the students tried to normalize their presence at the Woolworth's lunch counter so that what had appeared to local whites as "unnatural" would be revealed as wholly consistent13 . Kowal refers to Bertolt Brecht’s idea of “defamiliarization,” or “distancing effect” in explaining this choice.

Brecht explained this “distancing effect” as a way to "separate" or to "alienate" his audience from the characters and the action and render them observers who would not become involved in or empathize with the characters psychologically, but rather, achieve an emotional distance to better understand the characters' situations and be empowered to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world. This was Brecht's social and political goal as a playwright14 . This distancing effect is achieved by the performers never acting as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him (meaning a wall between them and the audience), and the audience is aware that the characters on stage are aware of them15 . I found that Brecht’s theatrical ideologies were represented in my work in the way that I used my spatial design and contextualized the characters of the dance. In many moments, my dancers looked directly the audience and referenced them, and even at the very end of the work, joined the audience area in a metaphorical attempt to completely bridge the gap between performer and spectator and employ nonviolent direct action.

Dance scholar Susanne Foellmer posited in her article, “Choreography as a Medium of Protest,” that everyday gestures like standing and waiting become political first, before turning into an artistic act, and finally into an alternative, legal form of resistance. She determined that a movement or moment becomes political based on several factors: the length of the action, whether or not alternative use of public space occurred, and the length of time the action occurred in that space16 . She also questioned when and how exactly artistic practice, namely choreography, becomes a medium of protest. She concluded that it can be considered a medium of protest if it creates political awareness, and discussed Randy Martin’s formulation of “embodied practice,” which is when the momentum of a “mobilization of participation in relation to a choreographic idea” becomes ambiguous. Martin claimed that mobilization is a decisive binding factor of dance and/as political movement based on how bodies are assembled, and how demands for space produce identifiable demands through practical activity. He explained that if movement can be plotted on a grid of space and time, mobilization (dance movement) is what generates that grid17 . Foellmer claims that “Participation, or the observation of and decision regarding an act that breaks ranks with the everyday, is an important condition for the translation of a (choreographic) movement into a political one.” Martin’s theory also notes that the audience’s role is important in that it sets boundaries or borders for performative and non-performative space, and this allows mobilization (of performers) to create demobilization (stillness of the audience observing). This led Foellmer to conclude that element of space and how the audience determines what denotes the end of the performance and its statement plays a crucial role18 .

While I chose to situate my dance on a proscenium stage, I utilized sound and multimedia to contextualize the movement and give a sense of “place” for the choreography at different times. For instance, near the end of the work, I showed a video montage from different protests in United States history such as the Greensboro Sit-Ins, Vietnam War protests, the ACT-Up die-ins, NFL players protesting for Black Lives Matter, women’s marches, and March For Our Lives. While this footage was projected on a cyclorama, the dancers embodied different movements associated with these protests, juxtaposed with the video, and it contextualized for the audience many of the movements that were used in earlier moments of the dance. These moments were created out of the nonviolent gestures that were “choreographed” for each of these protests. In example, at different times in the dance, the performers “sat in” in the style of the Greensboro Sit-Ins, raised one fist in the air (referencing several protests), ran and fell in an line that constantly moved as people from the back relocated to the front (referencing the ACT-Up die-ins), took a knee in solidarity, held both hands up and walked backward (referencing “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”), and more. Using multimedia to give the audience a sense of “place”, I recognized that space is important, as sites of political protest are often meaningful and recognizable. It is acknowledged by Foellmer, Kowal, Foster, and others that location is important for audiences to understand the political nature of choreographies of protests. At this point in the work, the dancers were united by protest and nonviolent direct action. Those who had previously succumbed to the bystander effect were now together and united, regardless of whether they were affected by the nature of the protest.

​Structure & Conclusion of #StandingBy

​#StandingBy consisted of six different sections. These sections remained separate ideas for me for the duration of the process, but blended together seamlessly with the repetition of movement motifs, as each separate idea evolved from and was informed by the preceding. I will detail the “sections” and their sound accompaniment, as sound became integral to the work as a tool to provide contextual information for the social movements I referenced in the choreography. The sections are as follows:

  1. “Privilege Walk”- accompanied by live speech from the dancers and the soundtrack
    of a heart beating. This was the privilege walk variation I created in collaboration with the dancers.
  2. “Walking Alone”- accompanied by the sounds of a person walking in a forest, a
    thunderstorm, and a quiet but ominous melody. This transitory section followed the last statement of the privilege walk, “If you ever feel unsafe walking alone at night,” and followed a featured (female) dancer whose experience would continue to serve as a trajectory for the rest of the work.
  3. “Anthem”- accompanied by the song “My Country” by tUnEyArDs. This was a chaotic group choreography that represented discord and divisions created by hegemonic social systems.
  4. “News Reports”- accompanied by recorded sound from news reports associated with the #metoo movement, DACA and family separation, and police brutality. Movement in this section consisted of a series of solos physically separated in different areas of the performance space.
  5. “#MeToo and Mainstream Media”- accompanied by the song “Tick of the Clock” by Chromatics and speech from Natalie Portman and the music artist Halsey at a 2018 women’s march. This section featured all of the female cast members, dancing individual and shared experiences related to the #metoo movement.
  6. “Connected Stories and a Call to Action”- accompanied by live speech from the dancers and a video montage projected on a cyclorama of the Greensboro Sit-Ins, Vietnam War protest, ACT Up Die-Ins, Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, and March For Our Lives. This section also transitioned into the song “For What It’s Worth” performed by Ann Wilson. Dancers were united by protest and took nonviolent direct action that mirrored images that were projected. Those who had previously succumbed to the bystander effect were now together and united, regardless of whether they were affected by the nature of the protest.

In all of the speeches and news reports I used, I centered marginalized communities, although I acknowledge that many of the voices of individuals I chose to feature were of celebrity status, which includes many privileges that marginalized members of their cultural communities do not have. However, I only chose individuals who were directly affected by the social issues they spoke about.

While the process of this work now concluded, I don’t see #StandingBy as complete. I imagine it will continue to evolve as the social and cultural influences that inform it also evolve. I envision each section of the work developing into separate works. It is important that dance and other artistic mediums are able to reflect and shape cultures and work toward abolishing societal hierarchies and systems of oppression. I’d like to hope that #StandingBy had a significant impact on the dancers in the cast. The culmination of the process did not allow time for a “postmortem” conversation with the cast to assess their experiences, as the MFA thesis was centered on my own degree and the full production calendar in a university dance program is typically airtight. I can say that #StandingBy significantly impacted the way I create dance and the way I work with dancers and students. The accessibility of the dance made it more than just concert dance or even a dance theatre hybrid, but an educational tool and an inspiration for social change, which is one of my own ways of taking direct action. This methodology for dance making is something I plan to continue developing in future iterations of #StandingBy, and other related works.

Pictured: Gabriel Terry and Sarah Wickham | Photo: Carey Barnette

Evolving Choreography & 2020 Iteration: Together, A P A R T, We Stand.

Following #StandingBy, I thought more about how to revisit the choreographic method of the work as an educational tool for social change. In evolving the work, I wondered how I could still direct the artistic vision of the work while centering voices and perspectives other than my own. How can my choreography be a form of nonviolent direct action? What can students and dancers learn from this experience of creating dance together and learning how to put their ideas into action?

About a year after the culmination of #StandingBy, 2020 brought about immense changes and developments. Art and education institutions (as well as many other businesses) shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A series of violent and racially motivated attacks against Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and unfortunately many others incited powerful movements across the United States and around the world. Peaceful, nonviolent protests were abundant and the Black Lives Matter movement surged forward with new steam, even despite counter protests and riots by other parties that were less peaceful. Additionally, many arts organizations were “called out” for perpetuating systemic racism through upholding practices of white supremacy. At a time where live performances were already suspended indefinitely around the world, these calls to action for immediate change and anti-racist practices hit hard. This is the time to begin anew and enact changes.

As the academic year grew near, the dance program at the university where I am currently working decided to hold a virtual dance concert and film works in advance. Feeling apprehensive about creating anything in the midst of a pandemic and all else happening, I thought back to the process of #StandingBy and how I intended to let the work evolve to reflect the current events and protests in my society. I also remembered the experience of involving the dancers in the work and collaborating, and decided that the shared experiences of the young students in my program, as well as my own experience through these tumultuous and powerful events of 2020 needed a creative outlet. 

Together, A P A R T, We Stand was inspired by a question that came about in a call to action for the broader dance community: “What is your action?” On June 3, 2020 The Dance Union’s virtual “Town Hall for Collective Action”, a group of dance artists of color from around the country assembled, discussed, listened, and learned about each other’s experiences in the field. At the end of a very cathartic conversation, the topic of change came to the forefront. What will change in these institutions and how to initiate it... what is your action going to be?

This is the question I started with when I cast dancers in August of 2020. What is your action? I then asked dancers to respond to the following statements verbally and in movement: “I stand for ____. I fight for_______. I resist ________. I sit back for__________. I march for_________.” The results were staggering: “I fight for love.” “I stand for Black lives.” “I sit back to listen.” “I march for human rights.” “I stand for the planet. The place I want my kids to live, I want my friends to live, I want to live.” “I resist silence.” The dancers are passionate, proactive, and persistent. They are empowered by the process and eager to see it through to the final product, as am I.

The work is still very much in progress, but the process is similar to #StandingBy. I serve as the “artistic director” and navigate the way, and the dancers are the ones behind the wheel, driving it forward. I consider it co-authorship. I also decided that a way to make this work more of a direct action was to leave the proscenium. This work will be a site-specific screen dance, and take place in various locations that resemble places of protest such as a downtown intersection, and a college campus. Going forward, my plan for #StandingBy and Together, A P A R T, We Stand is to continue to evolve and branch out into even more separate but related, co-authored works. Furthermore, I intend to continue developing the methodology used to evolve these works and allow dancers the agency to participate in and direct the creative process.

1. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” White Privilege and Male Privilege, (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988): 1. back to text

2. McIntosh, “White Privilege,” 2. back to text

3. McIntosh, “White Privilege,” 6. back to text

4. Lensmire, Manimon, & Tierney, et. al., “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Racism,” (Higher Education Review, 2013). 410. back to text

5. Lensmire, Manimon, & Tierney, et. al., “McIntosh as Synecdoche,” 413. back to text

6. McIntosh, “White Privilege,” 2. back to text

7. Christina Torres, “Why ‘The Privilege Line’ is a Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise (and How to Make it Better…Maybe),” (Education Week: Teachers, 2015): 1. back to text

8. Torres, “Why ‘The Privilege Line’ is a Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise,” 1. back to text

9. Margaret Hunter, “Light, Bright, and Almost White: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Light Skin,” Skin/Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the ‘Color-Blind’ Era, (University of Illinois Press, 2004) 22-24. back to text

10. Christina Torres, “PODER: Reimagining the Privilege Line Exercise,” (Education Week: Teachers, 2016): 1. back to text

11. Foster, “Choreographies of Protest,” 412. back to text

12. Rebekah Kowal, “Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins,” TDR: The Drama Review, 48(4). (The MIT Press, 2004): 136. back to text

13. Kowal, “Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins,” 149. back to text

14. Bertolt Brecht & John Willett, “Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting,” Brecht on Theater: the development of an aesthetic, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964): 1. back to text

15. Brecht & Willett, “Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting,” 1. back to text

16. Susanne Foellmer, “Choreography as a Medium of Protest” in Dance Research Journal, 48(3). (Cambridge University Press, 2016): 58. back to text

17. Susanne Foellmer, “Choreography as a Medium of Protest,” 64. back to text

18. Susanne Foellmer, “Choreography as a Medium of Protest,” 66. back to text

Works Cited

Bertolt Brecht & John Willett, “Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting,” Brecht on Theater: the development of an aesthetic, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964).

Susanne Foellmer, “Choreography as a Medium of Protest” in Dance Research Journal, 48(3). (Cambridge University Press, 2016). 58-69.

Susan Leigh Foster, “Choreographies of Protest” in Theatre Journal, 55. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). 395-412.

Margaret Hunter, “Light, Bright, and Almost White: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Light Skin,” Skin/Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the ‘Color-Blind’ Era, (University of Illinois Press, 2004) 22-44.

Rebekah Kowal, “Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins,” TDR: The Drama Review, 48(4). (The MIT Press, 2004). 135-154.

Timothy J. Lensmire, Shannon K. Manimon, Jessica Dockter Tierney, Mary E. Lee-Nichols, Zachary Casey, Audrey Lensmire, Bryan M. Davis, “McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism,” Higher Education Review, 83(3). (Researchgate, 2013). 410-431.

Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in White
Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies
, (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1990).

Christina Torres, “Why ‘The Privilege Line’ is a Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise (and How to Make it Better...Maybe),” Education Week: Teachers, exercise/, 2015.

Christina Torres, “PODER: Reimagining the Privilege Line Exercise,” Education
Week: Teachers
, education/2016/06/poder_reimagining_the_privileg.html, 2016.